Hidden Treasures of 16-Bit: Tales of Phantasia
The first in a series?
Though I have been a gamer for as long as I can remember, for some reason, the 16-Bit era, covering the run of the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis and Turbografx 16 stands in my mind as the period when the gaming industry was at its peak. There were just so many great games from that era, and in many cases, it often feels like the programmers and creative teams behind these games were at their creative peak.
For the past couple years, I have been collecting a lot of old games from my youth during this time period. Not only that, but I have discovered a lot of lost gems that I either never got to play back then, or never knew about because they did not get a lot of attention. These are the kind of games I want to discuss in this possible series. While everybody remembers games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario World, Final Fantasy III and Super Metroid from this era of gaming, there were so many games that fell through the cracks, or maybe were never released here in America at the time, but can be tracked down today.
I'm going to start off with a game that falls under that category. Tales of Phantasia helped to kick off a major RPG franchise that is still running today on current consoles, yet has mostly gone ignored, despite the fact it has received many remakes and ports over the years. I'm going to be looking at the original version for the Super NES, and hopefully bring some attention to this little remembered game.
TALES OF PHANTASIA (SUPER NES/SUPER FAMICOM)
RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 15, 1995 (JAPAN)
Tales of Phantasia came out in Japan right at the point when CD gaming was beginning to dominate the scene, thanks to the recent launches of the Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn. Though the Super Nintendo was still going strong and getting great support, it was obvious that the 16-bit system was starting to fade just a little in the face of its 32-bit competition, and with the impending release of the Nintendo 64.
So, in order to make the SNES stand out a little bit more against its flashier competition, many developers started tapping into the true power of the system, and showing what the 16-bit system could really do. The most famous example of this from the time period was Rare's Donkey Kong Country with its CG-rendered graphics. However, Tales of Phantasia was also considered an amazing achievement for 16-bit. But, it wasn't just because of the graphics, which were quite beautiful for the time, rivaling many of the top games Square was putting out, such as Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger. Instead, developer Namco decided to focus on sound.
Due to the fact that the game's program had a large portion devoted just to sound, Tales of Phantasia featured voiced dialogue performed by professional voice actors for the characters during battles and certain story moments, just like in a CD game. Not only that, it included a full vocal theme song which played during the game's opening sequence when you started the game. This was a big selling point for the game, and garnered it a lot of attention from the gaming press. After a long period of development and numerous delays for a year or so, Tales of Phantasia was finally released for the Japanese Super Famicom on Friday, December 15, 1995. And although sales were slow at first (due to the fact that the game was released just one week after the latest installment of the Dragon Quest series at the time, the biggest RPG franchise in Japan), it did go on to be successful, thanks to a variety of ports and remakes for systems over the years, including the Playstation, PSP, and Game Boy Advance. There's even a mobile phone version, but seriously, you should stay away from it, and just track down some of the console versions.
So, why did Tales of Phantasia for the Super Famicom never make it to the American SNES, and what makes it a hidden treasure of the 16-bit era? Well, to answer the first question, it was all about the timing of its release, as well as how large the game was. Phantasia held a whopping 48 Megs of Memory, one of the largest cartridges made for the system. Other major RPGs at the time, such as Chrono Trigger, clocked in at around 32 Megs of Memory. The added memory is what made it possible for the game to hold the voiced dialogue and vocal theme song. However, those extra Megs usually led to an extra cost for the game. Those of you who were into RPGs back in the day probably remember that those games were always a lot more expensive than others. When Chrono Trigger came out, it retailed for around $80, due to the size of the cartridge and the memory within it. Not only would Tales of Phantasia have been a massive translation project if Namco did try to release it over here, but it probably would have retailed for around $100 at the time, due to the size of the cartridge.
Obviously, this just would not make good financial sense for Namco's US division. The new 32-bit systems were coming out, and not many people probably would have paid $100 for a 16-bit game. And so, despite a lot of praise from American gaming magazines for its graphics and sound, the game was destined to remain in Japan. In fact, we would not see an official US release until 2006, when Nintendo partnered with Namco to bring the Game Boy Advance version over here. Sadly, this is probably the second worst version (behind the mobile version), due to the massive amounts of slowdown and the almost comically bad English voice acting. If you want the real Tales of Phantasia experience in English, you're going to have to track down a ROM hack that is easy enough to find on line, and play it on an emulator. Fortunately, the English translation is quite excellent, despite a few questionable attempts at humor.
A "Reproduction Cart" made to look like an official US release of the game.
Another way (and the way I discovered this game) is through "Reproduction Carts", which is when private sellers take the English ROM from on line, and then put it on a US Super Nintendo cartridge, so you can play it on your TV on any SNES unit. The sellers often go all out, creating an American-style package, and professional looking game sticker on the cartridge, making it look like an official Nintendo release from the 90s. As I'm someone who prefers to play classic retro games on a cartridge instead of a ROM, this is my preferred method.
So, let's take a closer look at Tales of Phantasia, breaking down the story and gameplay, and see what makes it a Hidden Treasure of 16-Bit...
The battle with Dhaos
The game actually opens with an automatic battle sequence, where a group of mysterious warriors are fighting an evil being known as Dhaos. Despite our group of heroes being near defeat, they manage to win the fight, causing Dhaos to escape to his secret chamber. However, the heroes are waiting for him there when he arrives, and seal him away with the aid of magical amulets, so that he can never curse the world again. The mysterious leader of the four heroes states that with Dhaos sealed away, he hopes the world will be at peace from now on. (Fat chance, obviously, as we wouldn't have much of a game if that happened.)
Our heroes start the game innocently slaughtering monsters in the woods, unaware of what's to come...
Flash forward some years later, and we meet a young man named Cless, who lives a carefree life in the small and peaceful village of Totus. It's an average day for our soon-to-be protagonist, as he prepares to head out to the nearby forest with his best friend, Chester, and do some hunting. Cless' father is a master swordsman who teaches local students the art of fighting. Before Cless leaves for the day, his father tells him that he wants to talk to him later that night about a certain amulet that he gave his son for his birthday a couple years ago. (Hmm...most mysterious, and intriguing.)
Unfortunately, they never get to have that father-son chat, as while Cless and Chester are out hunting in the woods, they hear the village alarm go off. They both race back to Totus, only to find that they are too late. The entire village has been burned to the ground, and everyone they know and love are dead. With her dying breath, Cless' mom tells him to go to the nearby village of Euclid, where his Uncle lives, and where he hopefully will be safe. With Chester staying behind in town to bury the many dead, Cless sets out on his own, uncertain of what is happening.
Cless sets out into the world for the first time...
When Cless arrives in Euclid, he spends the night at his Uncle's, which turns out to be a bad idea, as dear old Uncle is a backstabber, and winds up turning Cless over to some dark knights who were looking for the boy. The knights take our hero to a man named Malice, and with a name like that, you just know the guy's up to no good. (It doesn't help that he lives in a big, ominous castle, and that when he stands in front of a mirror, Cless sees a demonic monster in the man's reflection...) Turns out that Malice was the man responsible for the attack on Totus Village, and that the reason he killed everyone is that he was looking for the amulet that Cless wears around his neck. Malice takes the amulet, and then tosses him in the dungeon. Things look bleak, but then, Cless hears a woman's voice from the cell next to him, who helps him escape. However, when he reaches the woman's cell, all he finds is a dead body. The woman must have used her last ounce of life to help him escape...
Cless and Mint
While exploring the dungeon, Cless comes across another prisoner, a girl named Mint with healing attributes. Mint is the daughter of the woman who helped him escape before she died, so he decides to take her along. However, as you soon discover, you have a hidden connection with this young girl. It turns out that both Cless' parents and Mint's mother were part of that group of legendary heroes who sealed away Dhaos at the beginning of the game. Now Malice is collecting the magical amulets that can break the seal and free the villain. The friends track down the surviving fourth member of the original group of heroes, a man named Tornix D. Morrison. When Tornix hears that Dhaos is about to be revived, he heads out on his own, telling Cless not to follow him. Naturally he does not listen, and Cless follows Tornix into the sealed vault, where he gets to witness the ceremony where Malice frees Dhaos from his eternal prison.
Our heroes find themselves in another time and place after Dhaos is revived.
With Dhaos now free, he "thanks" Malice by killing him and his followers. The villain is now free to conquer the world at his leisure. Tornix explains that the only way to defeat Dhaos is with magic. Unfortunately, magic and Mana (the source of all magic) does not exist in this time period. And so, Tornix casts a spell to transport Cless and Mint back in time to over a hundred years ago, when magic was plentiful and Dhaos was rising in power, in the hopes that they can destroy him and change the course of the future. In the past, Cless finds many allies to fight alongside him, such as Klarth the summoner who can conjur powerful elemental spirits to do his bidding, and Arche the half-elf who possesses magic. Together, they will join forces to stop Dhaos' evil from spreading in the past, and hopefully create a brighter future for their world.
That's the basic gist of the storyline behind Phantasia. It's obvious that the team behind the game was more than a little "inspired" by Square's hit RPGs for the Super Nintendo at the time, as the plot shares many elements, such as magic and Mana fading from the world and needing to be revived (Secret of Mana), time travel (Chrono Trigger), and the descendants of heroes having to finish a task that they originally started long ago (just about any RPG from the era). Despite some overly familiar moments, the story still works, thanks to some strong dramatic moments, and powerful individual scenes involving certain characters, such as the tragic scene when Arche the Half-Elf is reunited with her lost mother without realizing it, and how her mother makes the ultimate sacrifice before Arche realized who she was.
Another thing that stands out about the game is how beautiful it is, even 21 years after its initial release. The game is awash with color, using just about every shade the SNES had to offer. There's also a ton of animation and detail. But what really makes the art of the game stand out is that every town and place you visit is completely unique, and has its own design and theme. In one town you visit, it is filled with water canals, and you have to rent a gondola boat to take you around the city. There are small, quaint villages, big bustling cities, and royal kingdoms to explore, so it truly feels like a living, breathing fantasy world where each part of the land has its own feeling and tone. This is part of what I mean when I said earlier that the programmers seemed to be at their creative peak when it came to the 16-bit generation. Just walking around the world in Phantasia and seeing all that it has to offer can make you pause, and just admire how much effort and detail the artists put into it. There's also a large and diverse soundtrack to go along with the game, which really shows off the powerful sound software that Namco focused on during its development.
So, now that we know the story, let's take a look at the meat of the game - the gameplay...
Overall, Tales of Phantasia is not far removed from most Japanese RPGs at the time. You visit towns to gather information and buy new items and equipment, explore dungeons, caves or towers in order to advance the plot and usually fight a major enemy waiting for you at the end, and fight random battles in order to gain money and experience in order to power up your party of four characters. However, while Phantasia is steeped in RPG traditions, it's battle system was something truly new at the time, and would set the course for all future "Tales of..." games that would come after it.
The best way to describe the battles here would be a mix of action and fighting games, with perhaps a bit of traditional turn based menu-based battles that were common in RPGs in the time. Rather than using the traditional turn-based combat that was popularized by Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, or the overhead action seen in Legend of Zelda and Secret of Mana, Phantasia's battles were displayed in a 2D side scrolling fashion, and gave you complete control over Cless, while giving you limited control over your party members, who were largely computer-controlled, although you could order them to perform certain spells when needed.
Cless would be able to move freely about the battle field, allowing you to move close to an enemy when you wanted to attack, or back away if you wanted to focus on defense. He had a variety of attacks at his disposal. If you simply pushed the "A" button, Cless would do a basic sword slash. However, if you pressed the button along with a direction on the control pad, Cless could strike upward or downward, allowing him to attack airborne enemies, or monsters low to the ground. He could also charge across the battlefield, and do a leaping or flying attack for more damage.
But most importantly, Cless had a variety of special attacks that he would earn either by gaining levels, or through certain events, such as receiving a new skill from a character he spoke to. These special moves could be performed with a simple combo of buttons, similar to a fighting game, or Sabin's "Blitz" moves in Final Fantasy III. You could assign these moves to whatever button you wanted, so there was plenty of customization. Not only that, Cless had both "short range" and "long range" special attacks, so depending on how far away you were from your targeted enemy, that would determine if Cless could pull off the attack. The system is great and simple to use. Not only is it easy to adjust to your personal settings, but the moves are easy to pull off. Some of your special attacks would also need to be mastered. The attack would start at 0%, but the more you used it, it would grow up to 100%. The point of this is sometimes Cless would earn "Combo Attacks" which would combine two of Cless' special attacks, and if he had not mastered one of the two attacks needed to pull of the combo, he would not be able to do it until he had.
As for Cless' party members, they were largely controlled by the computer's Artificial Intelligence (AI), but you did have control over how they would act. Pretty much all of your fellow adventurers are magic users in some way, so you can order them how you want them to fight. You can choose to have them use spells heavily (which can be annoying, since a lot of the spells will interrupt the action while the special effects go off), have them use spells conservatively and only when needed, or not use spells at all, and just have them automatically attack enemies with their weapons if they were nearby. You can even customize their strategy, and tell them what spells they can use at battle. That way, in case you're in a cave where all the monsters are immune to fire magic, you can make sure nobody casts fire spells, which would only heal the enemy. You can also choose to open up a menu, and manually select a character and a spell when needed, similar to a turn-based RPG battle.
The battle system in Phantasia is certainly innovative for its time, but it's also heavily flawed, and leads to some of the games major issues. It can sometimes be annoying having to constantly change the strategy of your party members, but it's a necessary evil. But the biggest issue that's sometimes hard to get over is that the AI on the characters is somewhat dumb. Your party members have a bad habit of walking blindly into enemy attacks, or getting hurt constantly while you're off dealing with something else in battle. Also, it's way too easy for enemies to cancel your spells or attacks. Once a character starts conjuring a spell, all an enemy has to do to seemingly cancel it is just nudge a character. And even though the spell will be canceled, you'll still lose the precious Magic Points used to cast the spell, just as if it had gone off. Too many times (especially late in the game when it gets really difficult), the game seems to cheat sometimes by having enemies surround your characters and just pummel you mercilessly, blocking every attack and effort you attempt, so that you can go from full health to zero hit points in a matter of seconds. It does create a certain unbalance to the game, and you will probably spend a lot of time resetting the game and grinding for experience if you want to get far. Remember to save your file often in this one, because the next random battle could very easily be your last.
Speaking of random battles, it would seem that Namco loved their battle system so much, they wanted you to experience it as much as possible. Therefore, they set the rate of encountering random battles extremely high. Sometimes you can only take just a few steps on a map before you are pulled into one. There is an item called a Holy Bottle which can reduce the number of fights you get in, but if you use that too much, you'll never be strong enough to make it through the game. So, get ready for a lot of fighting.
A lot of these issues would be fixed in the sequels that would come after Phantasia. This being the first game in the series, the developer was pretty much going into uncharted territory, and while they made their mistakes, you can tell that they learned from them. If anything, Tales of Phantasia plays kind of like an experiment, mixing RPG traditions with some new elements that are good in theory, but don't always work out. The potential is always there, but maybe the team couldn't handle or work out things they way they wanted them to. It creates an overall experience that is largely fun, but also extremely trying at times. You're going to need a lot of "old school gaming" patience to make it through this one, as it's a long quest, clocking in at around 40 or so hours.
WHY I CONSIDER IT A HIDDEN TREASURE:
There's no denying that Tales of Phantasia is a very mixed, and at times flawed game. But there's just so much passion behind the project that comes through as you play it. The developer put so much attention into the graphics, music, story sequences, the world and yes, even the battles, that you can't help but enjoy this game, even when it can be punishing or frustrating. The characters are likable and well-written (though this may largely be due to the excellent English Fan Translation it received), and the quest has some very cool individual moments, such as a scene where Cless battles an army of demons in the sky on the back of a majestic Pegasus in order to protect an allied kingdom.
You get the sense that with a few more tweaks to the programming code, this could have truly been an epic masterpiece that would come to be known with some of the greats for the Super Nintendo, such as Final Fantasy II and III, Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana. As it stands, this is still a great game filled with plenty of charm, humor, and of course the melodrama that Japanese RPGs were famous for at the time. It may not be the best or most original game out there, but that shouldn't stop you from playing it. If you've enjoyed any of the Square classics that I mentioned above, this game is definitely worth a shot. It's not perfect, but few games are, and the great definitely outweighs the bad here.
The beautiful character art, drawn by Kosuke Fujishima, creator of the anime and manga, Oh My Goddess.
And that concludes my first entry in what will hopefully be a series of articles. If you enjoyed it, please show your support. Also, I'm open to any suggestions of games you might like me to cover in terms of 16-bit hidden treasures that were either unappreciated in their time, have largely gone forgotten, or never had their fair chance. I'm willing to cover games from the three major 16-bit consoles (Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Turbografx 16), so don't be afraid to make a suggestion.
Until next time, my fellow Retro Junkers,keep the past alive, and I will see you all next time.